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Around 1955, a young W.C. Clark--fluent on bass and guitar, voice honed from singing gospel--launched his blues career when he took the stage at Austin's storied Victory Grill, in company with mentor T.D. Bell and Big Pete Pierson. His scope broadened when he joined Blues Boy Hubbard's Jets, backing R&B roadshows and keeping abreast of top-40 soul. Post-Jets, Clark toured with Joe Tex, who played not only soul venues and the occasional hellhole, but also kicker bars.
Catching the drift here? The neat pigeonholes some lore-makers try to cram musicians into don't fit with Clark. From the beginning, he's crossed boundaries and idioms. Personally inquisitive and musically voracious, Clark always kept his mind wide open. After Tex, he returned to Austin to find it full of young people bent on opening their own.
The '60s had bloomed, and although Austin was deemed the Mecca of Mellow, its blues underground was anything but. Its denizens clutched at the hem of Clark's robe, hungry for the benefit of his experience. "Young warriors," he called the best of them, pretending that all he did was prevent club owners from bilking them too flagrantly, but in reality he schooled them and even joined their bands. He was in Storm with Jimmie Vaughan, Southern Feeling with Angela Strehli, and Triple Threat with Stevie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton. He formed his own W.C. Clark Blues Revue, from which numerous acolytes have graduated, but he remained a regional phenom until Heart of Gold--an excellent mix of Memphis-style soul and barroom blues--came out in 1994.
On stage he's the polar opposite of the blues guy who rides his reputation while the sidemen carry the weight. Clark's a true bandleader, whipping his way through a vast and varied repertoire, and accompanists must be alert for his cues. Voice-wise he's one of the brighter lights in Texas, readily tying into such challenging soul-balladry as Latimore's classic "Let's Straighten It Out" and his own, misty "Reminiscing."
Shortly before winning the Handy, the temperate Clark uncharacteristically fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and in the resultant crash, two of his companions were killed. True to his personal form and in the time-honored troupers' tradition, his show goes on. That's something blues fans in this land--and others--should be more than a little grateful for.
W.C. Clark will be at Blue Cat Blues on Friday, July 11.